How They Spend Their Sundays by Courtney McDermott

How They Spend Their Sundays
Courtney McDermott
Whitepoint Press, 2013
214 pp. $16.20 (paperback)

Reviewed by Olivia Kate Cerrone

Absorbed by the cultural and socio-economic fallout of colonialism in Lesotho and South Africa, Courtney McDermott’s impressive debut story collection—How They Spend Their Sundays—is a mesmerizing read, raw with profound insight and a startling degree of intimacy. Through these twenty-two stories, the lives of both Afrikaners and outsiders are brought together under a fierce light, to examine a society fragmented by the unending presence of racism, poverty, disease and violence, particularly against black women.

Among these disparate voices is Q, a Lesotho woman in “Shades of White,” who works in the Portsmeade hostel of a white Afrikaner couple. Unable to afford caring for her own child, Q serves as a maid and nanny to baby Clara without complaint, though she is grossly underpaid and mistreated by her employers. She cannot help but meditate over the discrimination inherent in her position, as the narrative conveys that soon “the paleness of Clara’s eyes will fail to see Q over time until Q is nothing but a shadow—hovering on the periphery of her sight—ready to flash into slight existence when needed or spoken at.” Still, Q plays an empathetic witness to the growing domestic tensions and violence between the couple, revealing a vein of compassion typical in many of McDermott’s characters.

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In the title story, “How They Spend Their Sundays,” Seabata, a teenager in Lesotho, risks losing his scholarship to the prestigious St. Martin’s school, and a shot at attending university, when he unwittingly observes the gang rape of a female classmate. The experience only expedites his departure, as he realizes that he can no longer be part of a community where such violence is considered “custom” among men. Other characters are not so fortunate to escape.

In “Ausi With No Name,” Mathato is a Basotho woman scorned by her family and community, for rearing a bastard son. Boys spit at her in the streets, while the village women shun her: “Mathato isn’t allowed to sit with them. She is neither ‘me nor ausi.” Denied of the title of mother or daughter, she exists, stripped of an identity, for even “her body is not her own anymore but the body of her family—her house. Her sex is not private but judged—gawked at—leered at.” Mathato’s fallen position leaves her vulnerable to unwanted sexual advances and eventual exposure to HIV.

At times, McDermott blends together stark realism with the unexpected presence of magic, utilizing the fantastic to deepen the complexity of such diverse psycho-social realities, without sacrificing the poetic quality and probing insight of the literary voice. “The Ashen Shoes” is a Cinderella tale framed against the social disparity of an impoverished Lesotho woman’s world, while the dark and intriguing, “Evenings With Hilda,” steps inside the mind of vampire, whose duty in “releasing” the dying from a small African hospital soon brings him to make a heartbreaking decision.

McDermott’s narrative range as a storyteller is bold and impressive as she moves with effortless grace in peeling back the complex layers of social tensions built into the contemporary life of Lesotho and South Africa. How They Spend Their Sundays is a remarkable collection, offering a brutally honest but compassionate portrait of endurance in the face of relentless violence and human injustice.

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